In Australia, a ‘dunny’, is an outside toilet and anyone with a simple grasp of cause and effect knows that you cannot get rid of the smell by repainting the dunny door.

Things are not so simple in the reified atmosphere of our corporate boardrooms, particularly when the CEOs get together with their branding consultants. From those elevated positions of power, repainting the dunny door can achieve miracles, or so it might seem.

The whole notion of branding is an anachronism, a hangover from the sophisticated thinking and action in the medieval period, crudely and simplistically adapted by today’s robber barons. Flags, emblems, and heraldic devices formed a useful social function in their day. If you were a serf—one of the lower orders—these graphic devices told you who had the power to grab part of your crop, and when it was appropriate to get out of the way. They were the tokens of real power, the power of life and death. Of course, if you believed in sympathetic magic or certain religions, you might also believe that the power was embodied in the tokens themselves. But fast forward to today’s secular scientific world, without the power of magic or religion—without the real power over life or death—and these devices have no ‘effect’ on us lower orders. They are the trivial graphic baubles of contemporary capitalism, and we treat them as such.

Not so our large corporations. In Australia we have just experienced a classic case of the re-branding myth being played out in front of us.

Our largest bank—the National Australia Bank—has gone through a particularly smelly period, and the smell still lingers. If it were not for the fact that they have lost massive amounts of shareholder money, it would make good satire: a bank making bad investment decisions and losing money by dodgy financial deals. Should we trust this lot with our hard-earned savings? Hmmm.

Anyway, once the old orders fell on their swords (suitably jewel encrusted and padded to avoid causing injury), the new order came in to get rid of the smell. And what is one of the first things they did? They repainted the dunny door. They changed their name from ‘National’ to ‘nab’.

Only, we lower orders are not quite in the same relationship to the robber barons as we were in medieval times. The power relationships have shifted. We sniff the air to see if the smell is still there. Has anything really changed? Being simple folk, we ask ourselves some simple questions: have they just opened a new branch or placed an ATM somewhere that is useful to me; do I have to wait less time in a queue to do a simple transaction at the counter, or to talk to a human being in their call centre; are their statements easier to read and make sense of; are the letters they send me clearer; can I use their web site more easily; do they charge less than their competitors? The answer to all these questions is a resounding NO. The odour endures.

So weak is the branding effect that, moments after its release, it was being parodied. One letter to the editor of our local newspaper pointed out that the colloquial use of the word ‘nab’ as defined in the Australia Macquarie Dictionary is ‘to catch or seize, esp. suddenly’. The writer went on to say how refreshing this was, with a bank finally admitting how it behaves towards its customers.

Sometimes the best thing for a smelly organization to do is to take a low profile and stop continually reminding people of the smell. Or, to use a different metaphor, one of the most effective methods of avoiding continually shooting yourself in the foot, is to stop pulling the trigger. I offer this advice as something of a footnote.

But the bottom line (as it were) from a customer perspective is the smell. So perhaps the best strategy for our corporate barons is to get rid of the smell, improve the comfort and amenities, and then—and only then—repaint the dunny door in celebration of the achievement.